PREE update 3/05/2018
“My dears, I know what it is to live in a body that is constantly marked as not belonging to the place in which it resides, but to tell the truth, I cannot comprehend the further pain of living in a body marked as not belonging even to the place to which it most profoundly belongs – marked as foreign even in its own home.”
PREE is committed to pushing boundaries of what and who is read as Caribbean, and who is allowed to represent the Caribbean and be called a Caribbean writer. It is in this spirit that we offered Kei Miller’s groundbreaking essay The White Women and the Language of Bees in our inaugural issue.
In the brief time that it was up, the essay generated an intense, intersecting set of debates both on the ground and in social media, the volatile nature of which resulted in the author temporarily withdrawing it from PREE. For those interested in following the contours of these debates and arguments we refer you to an article carried in the UK Guardian yesterday: “Kei Miller essay about white women sparks tensions among Caribbean writers.”
In the meantime cries for the restoration of the essay to our site have grown exponentially and we are pleased to republish a more recent version of The White Women and the Language of Bees. It is anticipated that we will be publishing two responses to this essay in the near future, so please check back for this in days to come.
The White Women And The Language Of Bees
I must be given words so that the bees
in my blood’s buzzing brain of memory
will make flowers, will make flocks of birds
will make sky…
I write a message to the white woman though right now I do not know if someone like me have the right words to say to someone like she. I press send all the same. I think that right now she might be hiding from a man. The man is not me, but sometimes I think he may as well be me, which is to say that he is tall and black and he write all kinda books that try to capture the lushness and the harshness of these rocks that we call islands that we call home. This man decide to take it on himself to tell the white woman that she is not one of us, that she don’t speak for us or even to us. In fact, he is quite surprised (this is what he tell she) whenever he pick up a newspaper and see her face staring back at him. He is surprised when him see people calling her a writer from these rocks that we call islands that we call home. He want to know what someone like she could ever know about people like we, and about these rocks, and about these flowers, and about the language of bees. The man’s words move sharp as a cutlass and open up an old wound on the white woman’s skin. A world of anxiety festers in that wound.
I know that this man is just a carry-down artist. He see people trodding on whatever Zion-road they be trodding on, and he try to carry them down, even to carry them down to nothing. It is true that the white woman was not born on these rocks. She has this in common with the man – that they both live in places they were not born to. They are both immigrants. But the white woman has lived on these rocks for longer than he has lived away from them. And she has given birth on these rocks. And when she writes, she uses the range of languages and dialects that springs from these rocks. How many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it? In my message I tell the white woman that it is he – the carry-down man – who does not speak for us. He certainly don’t speak for me. I want to tell her that these islands are hers, and hers to write about. The white woman tells me how she did wake up that morning and place her head under a tap of water and she just stay there while the hand of the clock moved itself from morning to lunchtime. She let the water beat over her head and I do not know whether this was some sort of punishment or just a way to wash away the awfulness of the carry-down man’s words.
She say to me, Kei – look at me. I weigh 400 pounds. I cannot hide. And she say it as if pounds was the same as years, like she was saying, I weigh 400 years – as if hers was the entire weight of our history, of canefields and the Atlantic. And also, she ask me, what is the raasclawt language of bees? I wonder to myself what kind of man could make a woman feel so bad bout herself – could leave her numb by a tap of water considering how she might fit herself down the drain. And I can’t find the tongue to say O Daughter of Zion lift up thine head. For yours is the weight of love and livity. 400 pounds is the weight of 20,000 hibiscuses, or better yet, the weight of 1.3 millions bees – the weight of venom you should have applied to the man.
In truth, the white woman don’t need my help nor my benevolence. Perhaps that is my own arrogance – a lesson that I too have to learn. Still, I tell the white woman what little words I have to say and she tell me thanks and that my words mean something. But in time it is she who will pick her own self up, and it is she who will find her own tongue in her own mouth and will say ‘Daughter of Zion…Daughter of Zion…Daughter of Zion’ and she will say it until the words create a kind of energy and the energy lift her right back to her own Zion-road, and along that Zion-road she find a poem and then another poem and then another, and the poems will build up one by one to form a whole new book, and the book will be a thing indisputably of the rock. It is she – the white woman – who will recognize the man not for his blackness nor for his manness but for what is fragile and tremulous underneath it all.
I sit down to read the latest book of the white woman. No. It is not the same white woman. I know that sometimes it could seem that way, which is the whole point of this thing. At the same time that I read the latest book of the white woman, the white woman is reading my latest book (I know this because she has said as much) and I think it is a funny thing this, to live simultaneously in each other’s words. I must say that I feel relieved that I like the white woman’s book. For true, she understands the lushness and the ugliness of these rocks, and sometimes she describe things in such a way that make me see a landscape I have always known, but in a whole different light. This land is hers too, and also the water. She knows better than me the direction of rivers, and the colours that play on its surface. She knows the names of things – of trees and flowers and vines that grow along the bank of the river, and the peculiar shape of the roots. She knows the quality of heat that wraps itself around everything like a blanket. I find myself thinking that this is some of the best writing I have read from the white woman, and yet still I have questions. Yet still, something feel wrong.
All of this keen observation is coming out of the mouth of a man that the white woman has invented. According to the white woman’s invention, this man have no education to speak of. So how is he speaking these things? It is not that I don’t believe that such a man would observe all the things that he observes, but I do not believe the language of his observation. I feel like the white woman has not trusted the eloquence of her own character – has not imagined him as a man capable of saying the things she would like him to say but in his own way. It is as if she grew frustrated and decided to put his own voice to the side and put her own white woman’s voice in his mouth. This land is hers too, and also the water, and also the language.
Look, this thing is complicated. It is not that I believe that a writer – any writer at all – must be some kind of sociolinguist. I do not believe that the writer must make people say exactly the things that they would usually say. That is laziness. That is stupidness and the dereliction of duties. I believe something else entirely. I believe the writer must give their characters things to say that they are capable of saying, but which they might not have thought to say themselves. It is in this way that writing gives itself back to people and extends them. So I sit there reading the white woman’s book that has been written so beautifully, but is not the voice of the man who saying all these beautiful things. It is not his beauty – for I know this man, and I know he has his own beautiful way of seeing and saying things.
I wonder why the white woman hasn’t given herself access to this man’s voice, or given the man access to his own voice and his own possibilities. Maybe the white woman has her reasons, and maybe they are very good reasons, but suddenly is like I feel the hand of the white woman as she is writing the very page that I am reading, as if I have stepped through some portal of time, and is like I notice that her hand is trembling. Was she really afraid? Was she nervous about people like me reading her book and throwing words like ‘appropriation’ about? Am I a part of her anxiety?
I think all these things but I do not know how to say any of it to the white woman. Would she be defensive? Worse, would she see me as yet another tall, black man attacking her and questioning her rightful place in this world? No. I would not want to make her feel like that, so I say nothing. And my mind run again on Dionne Brand’s essay – how race mediates all our exchanges, how there are some things we can say and other things we cannot say. And always, the most important things are the things we cannot say.
I am with the white woman who once again is not the same white woman. It seem an obvious thing to say, but sometimes we must say the obvious: not every white woman is the same white woman; and not every black man is the same black man. Our racial identities matter, but plenty times it is the personalities behind those identities that matter even more. It is our personalities that make us use our black-man-ness or our white-woman-ness in such different ways, as shield and as spear.
So me and this white woman are on a beach in Trinidad, and here it don’t seem that night falls so much as it rises out of the water and then covers everything. I ignoring the mosquitoes and my eyes are trained on the beach and to the darkening. I am here to see something I never ever seen before. I feel glad that the white woman has taken me here. As the waves tumble into the sand, so do the turtles. They allow themselves to be pushed in by the salty current of their own world. They are huge – these turtles – leatherbacks. The small ones weigh 400 pounds, and they get much bigger still.
All day I had caught glimpses of them, out there in the deep water, every now and then raising their snake-like heads out of the water for a breath. They were waiting for the night – for this moment when they allow themselves to be pushed onto land. They look like dinosaurs to me – like something prehistoric – the way they lumber out of the water and how on land they seem to lose all of their grace. In water, they are like ballerinas. On land, they are clumsy, hauling their bulks to some spot along the beach where they can dig their deep holes and lay their hundred or so eggs. They fall into a trance when they do this and you can even touch them if you want to, but I do not. Even gazing at them with the white woman, observing their ancient rituals feels like an intrusion of sorts, like we have forced our way into a woman’s birthing bed.
I get to understand that some of these turtles have not been back to this land – to this particular beach – for thirty years. They were too busy growing up in the waters of Canada. The waters of North America have been kind to them. They have settled there. It is only the need to give birth that pulls them back to the very beach where they had been born years ago. In the time in between they have not visited – but when they become full of their eggs and of the future, something like the cord of love pulls them back. They will trust their eggs to no other sand but the one found on these rocks that we call islands that we call home. These are the original natives. These are the original immigrants. They do not worry or politicize their various migrations. It simply is.
Now it is a well-known phenomenon that when the turtles come onto land they seem to cry – not no cow-bawling mind you! The beach isn’t suddenly full of the wailings of turtles. It is just a polite drop of water moving down their eyes as if these mothers are experiencing all the pain and joy of homecoming. We are told now that there is no emotion attached to this eyewater. It is just biology – the removing of excess salt from their bodies, and also a way to protect their eyes from the sand. The white woman beside me however is really crying. Real tears. Real emotion. She is upset by a man who is not me, but it may as well have been.
The man had written this thing about the white woman and his words had moved like a cutlass, but it was many years ago and I am surprised that the white woman is still so upset by it. She cries as if this thing had happened yesterday. I know I do not have the right to say how long pain should last, or what we have the right to be upset about, but these days I find it harder and harder to extend sympathy to the white woman. I cannot find in me the tongue to say, Daughter of Zion, lift up thine head, because –Lord forgive me – I do not think of her as a Daughter of Zion. I think she is Daughter of another place.
Like the sea turtles, she too had migrated. And then she started writing these books, and they were very good books. She had been back before – often – but now she came back as a writer and seemed to discover so many things about the self same place where she had been born. The white woman wrote an article about this coming back, about finding out to her great surprise that on these rocks that we call islands that we call home that there were actually writers. Who would have believed such a thing? Writers who live on rocks! And not only that – some of them were actually quite good!
One could have read the white woman’s article for its generosity, or else one could have read it for its ignorance. The man had read the article for its ignorance and he had frowned. For days he had walked around with something like an annoyance growing inside him. It is true that the man was young – that age where things can seem to be more than they really are. The woman had written an article that few people would have read or even remembered, but the man had read it, and his annoyance grew and grew.
He thought about this white woman who was born on these rocks but who had become a writer elsewhere and so did not seem to know things. He could not forgive the white woman for her naiveté. His annoyance grew and became its own article. His article was many times larger than the small stub the white woman had written. In the man’s article he calls the white woman a modern-day Columbus, for she had discovered what was already there.
Upon reading this the white woman had cried for days and days, and even years later sitting on a beach and watching the turtles, she is still crying. She tell me again how the wicked man has ruined her. She tell me again that what the wicked man has written is libellous. She tell me again that she was tempted to file a big fat lawsuit gainst the man, but I think whichever lawyer she did talk to and who tell her that such a case was winnable was a samfy man, a merchant of snake oil, who did only want to take away what little money the white woman did have in her pockets. In any case, I glad she did not sue, for how would that have looked? A white writer from foreign sues a black man in the Caribbean – for what? Forgetting his place? Because he had the audacity and was renk enough to roll up all his smallness and blackness and use it as a weapon against her? She would not have survived the backlash.
There was a time when I did sympathise with the white woman who is also my friend. I used to tell her yes, yes, the man’s words were harsh…because they really was harsh, but then I would add softly…even though they were true. You understand that, right? There was truth in his words. She didn’t ever hear the last part. I suspect now, she could hear little beyond the sound of her own heart breaking. Every year I would try to say it a little bit louder: there was truth in the man’s words. You hurt him too! Do you understand that? You hurt him. You hurt me! But she would never hear that sentence. She did not know how to. Always, it was as if she needed me to see her pain, but never the place beyond it.
All those plenty years ago when this thing started, I used to stay on the phone while the white woman cried and cried and one time she did tell me, brazen-like, that the problem with Caribbean Literature is all the men. Is all those blasted black men who walk bout like them is some kind of king. And I did swallow at the other end of the line wondering if maybe she did forget who she was talking to – and wondering if she really thought that every white woman was the same white woman, and every black man was the same black man.
While the night rises up and the turtles lay their eggs, I tell the white woman, Look nah! There are so many things we need to sort through and so many things we need to think through. There are so many conversations we still need to have, and many of them will not be polite. We not always going to play nice. But we must talk the things all the same. What we cannot do is throw a tantrum every time someone say something that get under our skin.
The white woman says, that is all well and good for you to say, but talk to me when you too have been bullied by a black man. Talk to me after a man has aimed a steamroller at you and made you into nothing. I think about these words. I think about this depiction of the black man as bully, as savage, as brute. And I think of the man who had frowned at the white woman’s words and who in turn had strong words for the white woman, but how this man was really just a small writer from a small place who understood the largeness of his heritage. I think of what the white woman does not know, and what I do not know, and what she will never grasp, and what I will never grasp – what it means to be black or white, or man or woman – what and how our bodies mean in this world. I think about the distance that will always be between us. I think too about the white woman who had placed her head under a tap of water. Things is never straightforward. Sometimes a man like me will wield words against the white woman, and the blade of those words are sharpened by the stone of his own insecurities, but another time the man will wield words against the white woman, and the blade of these words are sharpened by the stone of truth.
‘Did I really deserve that? Am I such an awful person?’ the white woman is pleading with me. I swallow something in my throat. Is she still looking for my help and benevolence? I know she is not an awful person. She is like all of us. Sometimes there is goodness in her heart and sometimes there is darkness; I have seen both. But still and all, I think these question are unfair. This thing have nothing to do with who deserves what, or being an awful person. And I think of how she so easily imagines the black man as a brute and a bully and a savage. I suspect it is the way she thinks of me when it suits her. It is the way that the past is always present. I feel the salt gathering in my own eye and so turn back to watch the turtles.
There was once a white woman who wrote a book about white women who were from these rocks and the book became very famous indeed. That white woman has died – though even now whenever we see Mad Bertha burning herself up in the flames of Thornfield, we can’t help but think Antoinette! What a way them do you wrong, Antoinette!
That famous book begins like this: They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
Today, a white woman is running through the streets of a nameless Caribbean island and shouting, Close ranks! Close ranks! And I wonder if maybe she has read the famous book but not understood it completely – its implicit critique.
Whatever the case, the white woman is running through the streets but no one not bothering with her. They not batting an eyelid. It is like people saying to themselves, ‘Oh God! This again! She again! I cannot bother with she and her madness today.’ And so as the white woman runs and her feet grow weary she find herself getting angry at all the tall white gates with all the good good white people behind them, and how none of them have come out to close ranks behind her.
The next day, this is what the white woman says to the other white woman: Where were you? I was shouting and shouting for us to close ranks!
And this is what the other white woman responds: Wha’ de ass!! We still playing that Mas? Nah! I not into that!
The white woman says: But I was being attacked! The critics came for me with sharp knives. And when one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked!
The other white woman says: Nah! When you is attacked it mean that you is attacked. It mean you have to ask yourself, what have I done? And you gots to put on your big girl pants and your big girl shoes, and you parse out what is truth from what is fuckery and you deal with it.
The white woman says: But I was being attacked! The critics came for me with sharp knives. And when one of us is….
The other white woman interrupts: You listening to anything I saying or you just going to repeat the same stupidness over and over?
The white woman says: But look at our skin! (and she puts her hand against the other white woman’s hands, their freckles merging into one). We are sisters!
The other white woman says: Nah! That’s not how this thing works. I am sister to everyone who is from these rocks and who sit down to try and write the lushness and ugliness of our existence.
The white woman takes out from her pocket a passport and says: Well then look! I am your sister. I am from here too.
The other white woman frowns: In a way, yes. But there is more. This thing have to do with more than just passports and birth certificates and the accidents of our birth. It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us. It have to do with knowing the names of things. Of trees and flowers. It have to do with language. It have to do with knowing the word that we use is ‘sidewalk’ and not ‘pavement’, and that the word we use is ‘while’ and not ‘whilst’. You can’t be writing this place and putting the wrong words in people’s mouths. This rock is not made of granite or limestone, but with words. You must be given the right words. And these, my dear sister, are things you have yet to learn.
And when the other white woman says this, a swarm of bees rise up from a patch of yellow flowers, as if to say yes, and yes, and Amen!
The white women and I have things in common, bodies that are profoundly marked, though in different ways. One day I might admit this to the white women: My dears, I know what it is to live in a body that is constantly marked as not belonging to the place in which it resides, but to tell the truth, I cannot comprehend the further pain of living in a body marked as not belonging even to the place to which it most profoundly belongs – marked as foreign even in its own home.
The body of the white woman often gives her easy access to worlds for which I have no visa, but my own body gives me easier access to the words that make up my craft. We envy each other these things – these things that our bodies give us access to. If we could, would we trade our bodies, one for the other? I suspect not. So there is no real end to this, to this game, to this table that the black men and the white women dance around. Tomorrow there will be some new hurt, but who will cause it and who will nurse it is anyone’s guess.
This evening, perhaps, the white women will find themselves sitting on rocks and looking out to the great expanse that is the Caribbean Sea. There are so many things in that sea like ships and their sad cargos, and the dying dolphins and the dying turtles and the dying sharks and all this damned dying that make the white women and the black men want to bawl together. And even the night that seems to grow large from all the relentless dying seems to rise out from the salty depths. And when the night rises and envelops everything, the white women, because they are writers, will grab hold of it and squeeze out their own small portion of ink. And if they are so lucky it will be that kind of night that buzzes like bees, and from its ink they will form words, and the words will form flowers that will form flocks of birds that will form sky.
Photo: La Citadelle Henri Christophe, Cap Haitien. Source: ap
PS: In June 2020 Kei Miller’s new post referencing this one was published in PREE here.
“So way back when – when that whole bacchanal erupted because of my essay ‘The White Women And The Language of Bees’ – I learnt many things, and these were the kinds of lessons I was determined to learn only once so that I’d never have to learn them again. I wrote a long Facebook post right at the time, saying then that I’d continue it, but I never did. See this then as that continuation. Here are 10 things I learnt from the brouhaha:” Continue reading…
Kei Miller is a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer and a broadcaster. He is the author of over nine books, and winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literaure for his novel Augustown.